Lenin and globalization

As capitalism grows, does the political order that nurtures it crumble?

As delegates to the World Trade Organization celebrated, and protesters vilified the global economy, both groups could have used a history lesson. For better or worse, today's international market didn't simply emerge. It was deliberately constructed. Understanding this illuminates both the challenges posed by the world economy and the threats to it.

Too many economists and business leaders neglect historian E.H. Carr's maxim: "The science of economics presupposes a given political order and cannot be properly studied in isolation from politics." Though they correctly emphasize the unprecedented economic growth the global economy has engendered, they fail to emphasize America's equally unprecedented power, which made growth possible.

Several years ago a Pentagon planning document asserted that America's greatest post- World War II achievement is the creation of a "market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity encompassing two-thirds of the globe." To appreciate this achievement, it's helpful to recall the once-famous debate between V.I. Lenin and Karl Kautsky. Lenin held that any international capitalist order was inherently temporary because the political order among competing states on which he believed it would be based would shift over time.

Whereas Lenin argued that international capitalism could not transcend the Hobbesian reality of international politics, Kautsky maintained that capitalists were much too rational to destroy themselves in internecine conflicts. An international class of enlightened capitalists, recognizing that international political and military competition would upset the orderly processes of world finance and trade, would instead seek peace and free trade.

But Lenin and Kautsky were talking past each other. Kautsky believed the common interest of an international capitalist class determined international relations, whereas in Lenin's analysis international relations were driven by competition among states. Lenin argued that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between capitalism and the anarchic international system; Kautsky didn't recognize the division in the first place.

US foreign policy has been based in essence on a hybrid of Lenin's and Kautsky's analyses. It has aimed at the unified international capitalist community Kautsky envisioned. But the US effort to build and sustain that community is determined by a worldview not far from Lenin's.

To Washington, today's global economy hasn't been maintained by the common interests of an international economic elite, but by US preponderance. So, the Pentagon asserts that the global market requires the "stability" that only American "leadership" can provide. Ultimately, of course, Lenin and US policymakers diverge. While Lenin recognized that any given international order was inherently impermanent, America's foreign policy strategists have hoped to keep that reality of international relations permanently at bay.

Since World War II, the US has created a new kind of international politics among the advanced capitalist states. Whereas these states had formerly sought to protect their national economies from outside influences and to enhance their national power in relation to their rivals, they would now seek security as members of the US-dominated alliance system and their economic growth as participants in the US-secured world economy, adjusting their national economics as dictated by world market tendencies.

But at the close of the 20th century, global capitalism's contradictions are becoming apparent, as the international economy's very success begets potentially lethal challenges to it.

Just as "war made the state," so the world market's unprecedented autonomy, power, and pervasiveness is precisely the sort of challenge that could provoke the expansion of the state's capabilities and prestige (which, of course, raises the specter of totalitarianism). In short, as the global economy goes from strength to strength, the state must subdue it or be destroyed by it.

Even more important, it is precisely because capitalism has reached its highest stage that the state may have a chance against it. As the global economy has become more interdependent, it has become more fragile. For instance, the emergent technology industries are the most powerful engines of world economic growth, but they require a level of specialization and a breadth of markets possible only in an integrated world market. This web of global trade, production, and finance is tenuous - its strands remain anchored in states, entities that under normal circumstances are unmoved by appeals to comparative advantage and global economic efficiency.

In still another way, the global economy has perhaps sown the seeds of its own destruction.

The problem with the US-created global economy is that it has been all too successful. Through trade, foreign investment, and the spread of technology and managerial expertise, economic power has diffused from the US to new centers of growth. With a shift in the international distribution of economic strength, the Pax America will inevitably be undermined.

If the assumption of power politics, upon which America's post-1945 foreign policy is based, proves correct, then, as US preponderance weakens, the normal conditions of international relations will reemerge. Independent and jealous states jockeying for power and position will of necessity shred the web of the integrated global economy. Capitalism - at least the advanced state of capitalism represented by the global economy - may collapse as the political order that nurtured it crumbles. Although the empire he built is in ruins and his revolution discredited, Lenin may yet have the last laugh.

*Benjamin Schwarz is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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